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Wi-Fi World 

by Joel Smith


OK, so all that glorious CNN coverage of Spokane's Wi-Fi paradise turned out to be little more than a three-minute aside, wedged in between Wolf Blitzer and a commercial for anti-perspirant. But still, the city should allow itself a small pat on the back. With the CNN airplay and the Time article back in October, Spokane is getting a little well-deserved recognition for its almost accidental prescience in the area of wireless communications.


However, as the Time piece was quick to point out, even though Spokane may have pioneered the city-wide wireless "hot zone" (as opposed to smaller pockets of "hot spots"), it's no longer the only player in the Wi-Fi game. Cities as big as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York -- and as small as Walla Walla; Rio Rancho, N.M.; and Lafayette, La. -- are well on their way to a wireless utopia, and as the accompanying article demonstrates, new uses for Wi-Fi are being dreamt up every day.


So where exactly is Spokane's HotZone today, and what is the city envisioning for the future? Was Wi-Fi a one-time gold rush, or can Spokane keep up with the wave of the future?


City Wi-Fi Project Manager Robin Toth maintains that Spokane has "set the bar and other cities are trying to keep with us." The city's network, riding on the high-tech ingenuity of companies like Vivato, Itronix, One Eighty Networks and Purcell Systems, beams Wi-Fi throughout the 100-block downtown core from five roof-mounted base stations and 12 bridge routers, providing free wireless connectivity to anyone with the hardware to catch it.


And the HotZone isn't finished growing. Joel Hobson, network services manager for the city, says the downtown zone is only in Phase 1. The second phase, for which work is already underway, includes extending the zone across the river to embrace government buildings like the County Courthouse and the surrounding campus. Further expansion is still on the drawing board. Hobson suggests that Phase 3 might mean connecting the University District, Phase 4 the Medical District. Ultimately, the city would like to push the HotZone all the way out to city limits. And with other municipalities at work on their own networks, Hobson foresees a time when you could roam the region, jumping from one network to the next.


But that's not as sweet as it sounds, because none of those expansion phases is aimed at bloggers and music pirates. For now the city is focusing solely on providing Wi-Fi for municipal purposes -- information access for police and first-responders, streamlined reporting for downtown ambassadors, etc. The downtown HotZone will continue to be accessible to the public (though there's some discussion of charging for access), but the rest of the network beyond downtown will be password-protected, for official eyes only.


Joel Hobson explains the city's thinking. "Which should we give priority to? The high school kid who's streaming video, or the police officer who's trying to look up information on bad guys?" he asks rhetorically. "I'm thinking the latter, probably."


That doesn't mean Spokane won't see a broader public network in the future. But more than likely, such a network is going to come from private providers, not the city. "We don't want to compete with anyone who's offering a commercial wireless network," says Toth.


Once a city-wide public Wi-Fi network does hit Spokane, however, it may look significantly different than the HotZone does today. Greg Green, president of OneEighty Networks, the company that provides the city's fiber-optic backbone, points to the rapid innovation in Wi-Fi application. He insists that "wireless doesn't have to be synonymous with the Internet" and likens the new technology to the discovery of electricity. That was good, he says, but what was great was "whatever you can dream up to plug into it." Wi-Fi telephones, Wi-Fi sprinklers in Riverfront Park that turn on when they sense the grass is too dry, portable Wi-Fi TVs for watching the Zags in the hot tub. We're talkin' Jetsons material here.


So maybe the city is more concerned about wireless interoffice memos at the moment, and maybe Wi-Fi is eventually going to cost us, but with the extensive infrastructure Spokane already has in place, it's in prime position not only to stay on the cutting edge, but perhaps to the be the blade that cuts the cord for good.





Publication date: 12/23/04

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